What’s it like to not quite belong anywhere?
That depends on your understanding of what the word “belong” and the notion of “belonging” could actually mean.
The other day, I was sitting in a fancy, only mildly-hipsterish coffee shop in the small town of Dundas, Ontario, just outside of my hometown in Hamilton, waiting for the nearby auto shop to call saying they’d finished installing my snow tires.
Dundas has largely been spared the ridiculous subdivision development and condo gentrification that’s starting to take hold in downtown Hamilton and that’s all but ravaged Toronto and some of its environs. As such, the old Victorian houses and two-story red-brick storefronts attract people who are looking for a sense of old-timeyness: small local grocers and retailers, centuries-old trees around every corner, proximity to the farmlands and country stores atop the valley, and homegrown festivals and events that draw residents who need not drive, but walk to where the action is.
It’s the desire for a rootedness that draws many people to places like Dundas. I suspect it’s got more to do with the look and feel of the town itself than anything: an old-fashioned sense of community longed for amid the shallow sea of conformity of suburban, subdivision-based housing, cookie-cutter strip malls, chain stores and restaurants that’s all but overtaken the surrounding areas of this place and many others around North America and parts of Britain and Europe, maybe others.
That day, sipping my coffee and finally getting to the homestretch of Stephen Jenkinson’s Die Wise, I looked out the window every so often and found myself thinking about what it was that made this place attractive. Maybe it was the cumulative effect of several weeks’ study of Jenkinson’s words and ideas around ancestry, culture, death, and other topics, but my awareness came back to that feeling that the place evoked.
Home. More specifically, belonging, and Jenkinson’s unexpected deconstruction of what the term really means, etymologically: not the state of being part of a home or community, but to be “beset by longing” for it.
And all too often, the “it”- the small, walkable-town with the two-storey stone- and-bricks that predate the existence of the nation-state in whose territory they sit, or the cozy, somewhat overpriced local grocer who sells bread from a local baker and meat raised and slaughtered by a local farmer — becomes illusory once you actually live there. No reality can possibly live up to the Platonic ideal of “village”.
In Dundas’ case, there are often more visitors than locals in the downtown, more cars than pedestrians, and more than a few chain stores and restaurants, many of whom are the only ones who can afford the increasingly rising rents on the main thoroughfare.
At least, that’s how it seemed that day. Though, reflecting on my other visits over the years, that’s how it seems most days.
All it takes is a single kebab shop to kill the illusion of timelessness.
Newcomers in an Old Land
In multicultural Ontario, amid the often-vibrant diversity, there’s still a yearning among immigrants and multi-generational residents alike for a common, unifying community experience, as evidenced by the influx of people to places like Dundas and other villages-turned-towns like Brooklin, Waterdown, Grimsby, to name just a few. There are many darker faces amid the lighter ones in the crowd that show up for Christmas tree lightings and summer street festivals and the like.
Personally, I feel that sense of community and “belonging” (however you want to use it) when I go to a town that looks the way this one does and see two things: a fish and chips shop and an old-timey (read: British) pub. I look for Union Jacks hanging from streetlamps that look like they belong more in Dickensian Camdentown than anywhere on this side of the pond. And why not? Canada was, after all, a loyal part of the British Empire. Supposedly, that’s the “culture” that you’d expect to find in places like these, right?
Thing is, that’s not what we end up finding. In addition to Americanization, even if you were to find a self-declared “Victorian” community (Waterdown, my old home not far from Dundas, marketed itself as such), even if it had the accompanying architecture and look — right down the aging population of people who speak with an English accent and consider pasta an “ethnic food” (true story) — there’s still something not quite unifying about it.
As someone who was born elsewhere but lived here for 98% of my time in this body, I still find myself not quite fitting into places like Dundas. The faces of the people who supposedly make up that “culture” don’t look like mine, and when I see ones that do, I perceive them as outsider-kin, fellow newcomers who came here from elsewhere looking for the same thing, but not and never quite a part of it.
I see a yellow, brown, or black face in Waterdown or Dundas and I just assume they either just moved here or are simply passing through, popping in from the more crowded Hamilton core or maybe the distant, long-filled-up sprawl suburbs of Brampton and Mississauga. In them, I perceive the same “be-longing” that I feel inside myself.
Neither of us, regardless of the truth behind the perceptual story, belong here, according to the perception. I, too, occasionally get the lingering stare from a pale-faced denizen who seems to be an authentic life-long resident of such places, the stare that forever renders me as “other” before I have the chance to show them we share the same language and dialect.
Sprawl towns aren’t community. Apparently, then, neither are Victorian towns. The longing continues.
Meanwhile, this land under our feet is neither of ours, Anglo or non-Anglo- Canadian.
The thought occurred to me, during my window-seat contemplations that rainy day in the Dundas cafe, that gave some muscle and bones to a social justice meme that I’d seen on some social medium a while back about power and dominant groups in society: that the people who are afraid to share power are afraid that they’ll get treated the way they treated the others once the tables have turned. (Or, you know, words to that effect).
The lands that Dundas and most of the Golden Horseshoe of southern Ontario sits on came at the price of displacement and deliberate deculturalization of the Indigenous peoples here (the Mississaugas of New Credit, Haudenosaunnee, and Six Nations peoples, to name just a few). Out of all possible cultures and peoples living in this area today, one would think individuals who are of indigenous blood would have the deepest, most longest-running roots to this land, going back thousands of years.
Sadly, the colonial experience tore apart many of those long-standing threads, irrevocably altering the cultures themselves and the fates of the individuals who “belong" them. Lost languages, lost stories, lost histories, lost ancestors, and, of course, ongoing problems such as joblessness, addiction, suicide, even basic infrastructure like clean water and power on the reserves.
Indigenous, English-Canadian, or immigrant: to a great degree, we are all “beset by longing” here, and not always for the same things.
But I wonder, then, at that notion: that a possible, subconscious reason why individuals with English-Canadian roots will sometimes behave in othering behaviour towards immigrants like me is that they fear we are here to do to them what their ancestors did to those who were already here.
From that perspective, does that make of me a colonizer, in turn? I don’t think there are many newcomers to Canada who are lining up to cede their new properties back to the First Nations. Maybe the receiving end of colonization is what “native born” Canadians in small towns see when the chippy closes down and gets replaced by a kebab shop, months later.
Then again, the sight of a kebab shop or a roti joint or pho place in a town that looks like it needs a chip shop and a pub does kill some of that illusion of common, old-timey “heritage”, doesn’t it? This may be especially so around Christmas, when visions of Tiny Tim and Master Fezzywig fill our Anglicized hearts and minds (at least those of us who’ve been Anglicized) and we yearn for old brickworks and chestnuts roasting on open fires and hot apple ciders. For carolers in tall hats and long green scarves singing actual hymns regularly sung in churches and regarded as quaint and charming by non-Christian onlookers.
Subconsciously, at this time of year, we are trying to re-create Scrooge’s London, and Scrooge’s London didn’t serve shawarma. It’s a subtle bit of psychological colonization to be sure, though I’d assert, not necessarily a harmful one for people like me. After all, I’m also seeking for the sense of “belonging” that it represents, one that I’ve never quite been able to find in my Trinidadian roots.
And what about Trinidad, then? Hmmm…
If you think about it, all those who hail from the Caribbean and claim an ethnic or national origin from there (Jamaican, Guyanese, Bajan, etc..) don’t often consider that their identities, too, are historically-based on the genocide of the Carib, Arawak, and other aboriginal peoples by the same European powers that did so to the first nations here.
There’s also the quirk of moving from one colony to another to another. If, as Stephen Jenkinson asserts in his contemplations, that North American culture’s sense of homelessness and “be-longing” is greatly a result of the colonists’ break with the continuity of their homelands, then Trinidad for me represents a break in itself (when my ancestors left India on indentured contracts), just as it would for others (for black Trinidadians most notably, when their ancestors were kidnapped in West Africa).
In Trinidad in particular, a British colony, we were Anglicized early, my parents taught in the British education system, my grandfather speaking “proper” English and teaching his children in that same fashion. Moving to Canada, then, in terms of institutional familiarity, was less of a culture shock than it could have been elsewhere. There was a vague sense of colonial kinship, something in the same historical-sentimental ballpark of the cod-rum trade that long connected Newfoundland and Jamaica.
Still, I don’t see too many Caribbean immigrants feeling as homeless as I do. Maybe that just comes with my own specific experience, how soon in life I was brought here and how long I’ve stayed. This country and dominant culture is home; Trinidad — a place I know by smell, but which is still mostly the homeland of my cousins and, only by sheer technicality, me — is not.
No, I’m “Canadian”, whatever that may mean.
My musings that morning would have continued but for the call I got from the shop. Car was ready. Time to head on over, settle up, and go home.
A Last Word on Longing and a Caveat for this Ramble
I suppose it’s not so bad to “be-long”. You can play with the word a bit.
If I say “I belong in Hamilton”, it can mean both “Hamilton is home” and “I am beset by longing in Hamilton”, which, in turn, could be taken to mean “I long for Hamilton”, which sounds on the face of it absurd. Why would anyone long for a place that they’re already living in?
Then again, how would that look elsewhere? What if we longed for our partners, while they’re standing right beside us? What if we longed for the anticipated dish even as we ate it? What if we longed for writing as we write, painting as we paint, achievement as we achieve?
Naturally, none of this is necessarily grammatically-correct, and I’m sure my editor, if she’s reading this, is experiencing palpitations of some kind at my verbal gymnastics here. Still, there is a refreshing utility, as well as a significant shift in how to perceive reality, when you play with Jenkinson’s own twist on the term “be-long”.
Longing, in this context, no longer involves thinking on something that’s far off in space or time, but in having a particular feeling we associate with “longing” for someone or something that exists, right here and right now. To be beset by longing requires presence, acceptance of what’s so.
A final caveat: I claim no deep expertise in these matters, and I don’t invite anyone reading this to take this as some kind of truth or gospel, but nor do I expect those who are in the know to dismiss my amateur musings out of hand. This is, after all, just a musing, wrought by a few weeks of reading some deep material and reflection on where I am at any given moment, which lately hasn’t been that far away from the place I call “home” for however long the costs of rent and living will keep me here. All I ask of you in reading this is to reflect for yourself on these same matters in your own way.
About the only thing I know for sure, though: I feel a lot safer driving with the snow tires on. It’s going to be a good winter.